Amphitheater Public Schools Boardmember Mike Prout thinks fellow boardmember Nancy Young Wright carries too much baggage as a community activist and opponent of development to lead the school district and wants the other board members to make him the next board president.
He also thinks the district should be an ardent proponent of more growth in the district, saying it is the best way for the district to receive more funding for new school construction.
Prout expressed his views about Young Wright in a more than 2,000 word letter to other board members last week. The letter has sparked a struggle between Young Wright and Prout for control of the school board.
In response to his comments, Young Wright characterized some of Prout's ideas as "strange" and said he has only a loose grasp of development issues in Oro Valley and Pima County.
The board was scheduled to vote on a new board president Jan. 14 but results were not available at press time. Young Wright was unanimously appointed interim board president in December until new board members joined the board this week. Smith and boardmember Mary Schuh did not seek reelection in November. They were replaced on the board by Patricia Clymer and Jeff Grant.
The tiff between Young Wright and Prout essentially started Dec. 20 when Young Wright sent an e-mail to the other board members asking that those interested in leading the board submit a letter to district Superintendent Vicki Balentine about why he or she wanted to be board president and some information about his or her qualifications.
Prout, Barabee and Young Wright submitted statements. Each became aware of what the others wrote when Balentine sent the statements to all boardmembers Jan. 10 as part of the regular board package given members the week before scheduled board meetings.
In his statement, Prout was detailed in why he thinks he's the best choice to lead the district, "I have mentioned on two occasions that it was perhaps my better responsibility to lead the (governing board). The first was immediately after the recall election when I thought that I might be less controversial than Ken or Nancy going into the turmoil before us then. The second occasion is in the current context, and it is based upon similar rationale: I have no history of political activism. I have no conflict of interests.
"I will not be controversial to any element of the district's greater community, especially developer/builders and the (Oro Valley) Town Council. This is important at this time of extraordinary financial need for our new K-8 school that the Arizona School Facilities Board cannot build for us."
Young Wright has prominently battled Oro Valley for several years over the pace of development, particularly around Honey Bee Canyon, a boulder-strewn, saguaro-studded arroyo that drains the southeastern portion of the Tortolita Mountains.
Recently, the district has injected itself into development issues in Oro Valley, asking the town to take into consideration the impact new home developments will have on school enrollments. It has also sought voluntary payments -- usually $1,200 per home -- from home builders to help pay for school expansions or new school construction. The district has asked both Oro Valley and the county to consider whether a builder has agreed to make the voluntary payments to the district before approving the developments.
The district's hands are tied by the state in terms of school construction because Arizona's method of funding construction by local property tax levies was ruled unconstitutional in 1994. The state became responsible for school construction funding and created the School Facilities Board to oversee the program. The board uses a complicated formula to calculate a districtwide square-feet per student ratio to determine which districts qualify for new school construction funding. Amphi has been told it won't qualify for funding for several years because it has room for students districtwide, even though some of the northern schools are near capacity.
At the root of Prout's argument that he is better to lead the board than Young Wright is his belief, as stated in his letter, that the district must increase its school enrollments in order to get more money from developers for school construction. He said Young Wright's activism puts her at cross purposes to that goal.
"Our management of factors resulting in (school enrollment) and our management of an organized campaign to build a new K-8 school without (state) assistance require pro-growth leadership," Prout wrote.
"School population growth is both a negative and a positive. The challenge to (governing board) leadership is to improve the district's vitality by embracing community growth. As home owners and traffic-commuters we do not want rapid growth in our community, but as (board) members we must set aside those concerns if those personal agendas interfere with the betterment of the district.
"Being activists against growth works against (enrollment) growth and the financial future of our district. This is a conflict that should not reside in the president. I believe that as (board) president I can better lead us in proper growth acceptance management."
Young Wright said she was "disappointed" when she read Prout's statement.
"This is exactly the kind of thing we wanted to change; indeed, we had worked to change from the prior board. But I've had experience with this before … I used to get attacked all the time, it was commonplace," she said. "And I've also had experience in Oro Valley in watching people attempt to get into power by manipulating others against each other and unfortunately I think that's what's happening here. I think (Prout) is attempting to turn Mr. (Jeff) Grant and I against each other or certainly him (Grant) against me."
Prout said in a telephone interview Monday that his push for board president had nothing to do with Grant, but with getting money to build schools. Prout's letter did not mention Grant.
Grant said no one had tried to influence him in any matter.
Prout said conflict on the board might be natural now.
"Whenever you get a number of decision makers, you have an ebb and flow of the majority," he said. "When the top issue was cleaning up the corruption in Amphi, you had unity among the board members. But that's been done. Now we have a problem that has been on the back burner for a long time that has moved forward, and that is growth, and our reaction to that growth."
Young Wright said she thinks Prout "feels he's got to be some sort of champion for the developers and I don't know why because they don't need our help."
She said Prout doesn't understand all the issues. She said the district has not decided what size school it might need in the Northwest in the future, though Prout referred to a "K-8" school several times. Also in his letter, Prout said the district should encourage "rezonings from the county's default zoning of one-house-per-three acres to two-houses-per-acre."
"He has the beginning part of the story, but he doesn't understand it all." Young Wright said. " … we're probably looking at statewide property taxing to build schools, so (Prout) seems to be frozen in time with some model of the State Schools Facilities Board when actually it's subject to being changed, maybe this year," she said.
"This idea of two homes per acre is so strange, it is obvious to me he doesn't know the community, he doesn't know anything about planning and this is not an area he's had any experience in at all … I think it's all about control, and that's what made the board sick before."
The budding feud is the first sign of disharmony on the school board since the years preceding a bitter recall election in 2000. In fact the story was leaked to the press by Schuh. Prout's statement included references to Schuh's behavior during a board meeting last spring concerning negotiations on the early retirement program.
Because Schuh was mentioned in Prout's statement, Young Wright scanned the document into her computer and e-mailed it to Schuh.
"I felt since she was mentioned, she deserved to know what was being said about her," Young Wright said.
Schuh responded to Prout at his home e-mail address. Prout had not seen the response as of Monday, but was read it by a reporter.
In her e-mail, Schuh said Prout's Governing Board Leadership Statement was a "scurrilous diatribe" against Young Wright and referred to Prout as "Pouty Prouty" in the copy of her response mailed to this paper and six other recipients. After chastising Prout for "attacking" Young Wright and her, she fired several salvos back.
"Well, you have undone with your nasty little ambition, obviously since May 2000, all the hard work to turn this district around," Schuh wrote. "If you are involved, there is going to be darkness and sadness on the land of Amphi and Oro Valley isn't going to be too thrilled either. What's the next step, a developer-funded run for Oro Valley Council?"
Prout said his only formal contact with Oro Valley officials came this fall when Smith asked him to attend a meeting with Councilmember and Amphi liaison Paula Abbott, Mayor Paul Loomis and Town Manager Chuck Sweet.
When asked if he was advocating getting in bed with developers, Prout said, "Only the ones who pay us money … I have a special interest in getting donations for our schools."
Young Wright, though, sees more behind Prout's comments than just a power struggle over district funding.
"I'm not as concerned with who chairs the the board as I am with the tone of this attack and about some kind of entity trying to control us through him," she said. "That's been a problem in the past, the development community used to control the Amphi school district and the thoughts he's thinking about this growth bringing us money - that's the way we used to think and that's how we got into overcrowded schools. That's an old idea from the past."
Young Wright, in her statement to board members, touted her experience in various volunteer positions in the district, her membership on Arizona School Board Association committees and her past advocacy for "accountability, openness, higher salaries, dialogue and ethical conduct" in Amphi as some of the reasons she should be board president.